In July, more than 1,300 conservationists met in Kuala Lumpur for the first time. This was one of the most important conservation gatherings in the world: the International Congress for Conservation Biology. What did it do for conservation in Malaysia?
IT WAS extraordinary to see them on the stage. Roslan Carang, Param bin Pura and Hadi bin Mes were addressing international conservationists in a huge plenary hall. The three Orang Asli men hail from Malaysia’s largest forest complex, the Belum-Temenggor.
It was extraordinary because this was the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) 2019, one of the largest meetings of conservation practitioners and students in the world.
(Photo: Roslan Carang, Param bin Pura and Hadi bin Mes presenting at the panel on ‘Indigenous Perspectives on Conservation Biology and Community Development’. Credit: SL Wong)
Organised biennially by the United States-based Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), the congress was held for the first time in Kuala Lumpur from 21—25 July and featured over 1,130 presentations, symposia, posters and workshops.
Having the three indigenous men as panellists in this forum was a crucial acknowledgement of their roles in conservation. This is essential in Malaysia, where the contest for resources is pushing these already marginalised minorities to the brink.
Roslan, Param and Hadi work with scientists, activists and the government on hornbills, elephants and poaching respectively. In the forum, they emphasised how key it was for scientists to engage with their communities.
While doing so, they urged collaborators to “respect our beliefs and laws”, as their traditional knowledge was central to conservation efforts.
A showcase for Malaysia
In similar ways, the four-day congress was important in highlighting the range of conservation activities and processes in Malaysia, and the people who do the work.
Two of the four plenaries and several thematic discussions showcased Malaysia in the context of the trans-boundary nature of conservation, the focus of this year’s congress.
The plenary on faith traditions in conservation highlighted, alongside major religions, Kadazandusun spiritual values and practices relating to the environment.
The plenary on species on the brink spotlighted the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), found only in Malaysia and Indonesia. It put into sharp relief the messy, political and experimental trans-regional and multi-stakeholder process intrinsic to countering species extinction.
Meanwhile, both Malaysian and Southeast Asian contexts were highlighted in discussions on respectively, plastic pollution and saving wildlife and wild places.
Of the plastic sessions, a lively exchange ensued when two Malaysian plastics industry representatives shared the stage with two internationally-renowned marine conservation activists.
In addition, a plethora of research was shared, from all-Malaysian panels on karst ecosystems and nature education to youth in conservation and wildlife crime. (See Macaranga’s coverage here)
It is a rare thing to have in Malaysia, such a major forum where conservationists from 87 countries see what’s happening in Malaysia and Malaysian conservationists cast themselves in a global context.
“ICCB is very big in the conservation world,” said Dr Chong Ju Lian, senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu and Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) researcher.
“I got the chance to meet the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group Chair right here in KL. I also reunited with a few people I hadn’t seen in 10 years.”
Moreover, she hooked up with a local Wildlife Department officer working on pangolin conservation. They now aim to align their outreach programmes and share related materials too.
“I hope ICCB inspires local conservationists with knowledge exchange and promotes collaboration in research,” said Dr Wong Ee Phin, the local organising committee Chair.
Wong is also President of the Malaysian chapter of the organising society and studies elephants at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia.
Indeed, participants were unanimous in their enthusiasm as to the benefits of ICCB. However, they also remarked on the small Malaysian presence.
According to organisers SCB, registrants identifying themselves as working on Malaysia made up 11.4% or 156 out of 1361 attendees. Of these, about 120 presented in or organised talks, symposia or short courses.
In contrast, the previous ICCB, which was held in 2017 in Colombia, saw a local attendance of 15%.
Said Wong of ICCB 2019, “It is a huge conference, and 12 concurrent sessions. So although we did a lot to promote local researchers and showcase their work in Malaysia, in the larger context it seems very little.”
Looking at their origins, ICCBs used to be largely American. Non-American membership grew until four years ago, when it equalled the latter.
Since then, the number of countries represented in the membership has increased from 90 to 140. Membership is now at 3,500, of whom 92 are those working on Malaysia.
With a more diverse membership and increasingly complex and urgent conservation challenges, the nature of the beast that is the ICCB is evolving and becoming contentious.
“It’s a balance,” said Dr John Cigliano, this year’s congress Vice Chair. “We want to have as broad a representation of what’s being done by our members as possible. We hope that everyone can benefit from that.”
Congress Chair Dr Leslie Cornick added that the hosting of ICCB has been rotating among its five regions. The aim is “to shine a light on the specific needs and challenges each one faces, also to build awareness and capacity.”
At the same time, it serves to “demonstrate to the western world that there’s great work being done by local scientists all over the world, that you could do good conservation work with less funding—there’s so much creativity.”
Malaysians were actually well represented at this year’s congress. For while they make up about 2.6% of SCB membership, Wong estimated that their percentage in terms of presenters was 4.4%.
When asked, Cornick said no dispensation was made in favour of host country proposals. “All of them go through a standard peer review process.”
Cigliano said he was impressed by the work presented by Malaysians. Both he and Cornick have organised several ICCBs as well as other conferences.
“When I come to conferences like these, I also look at what happens between talks,” he added. “And with the Malaysians, there was a lot of engagement with others, learning from each other and making contacts on how to advance conservation.”
Such an experience sets an important precedent for young researchers like Lyvia Chong, who was attending her first conservation conference. “At the beginning, I was so nervous. I think myself very young, not experienced, and I only work with sea turtles.”
She decided to volunteer for the congress—“I wanted to be involved in a lot of ways”—and found the exchanges enriching.
“I didn’t restrict myself to marine fields,” said Lyvia. “The whole point is networking. I learned a lot. I told them my challenges. People always gave me encouragement, telling me they had had to do their work for 10 years before seeing results. There was a lot of motivation. It was awesome!”
However, the fact still remains that out of the likely thousands of people working in conservation in Malaysia, only 156 got to personally reap the experience that was the ICCB.
At the same time, many of the sessions that the Macaranga team attended were not even half filled.
In some sessions the emptiness felt embarrassing, such as the one on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Held in the 3,000-capacity plenary hall, it only attracted a sprinkling of attendees, many of whom were on their mobile devices.
Likewise, the all-Malaysian plastics discussion, which was likely handicapped by its last-minute addition to the programme, and held at 10am on the opening day of the congress. The much smaller space in which it was held was also woefully empty while just outside, the line for coffee snaked.
The STEM and plastics sessions are important to highlight because they had as panellists, Malaysian civil servants, whose scarcity participants also lamented.
On the former was a Ministry of Education officer and the latter, a Deputy Secretary-General of the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology and Climate Change.
Poor attendance might have been partially organisational but the main barrier to entry was the registration fee. “It’s too high” was the one universal response Macaranga got, even before the congress began, and then, for weeks after.
The early bird fee for SCB members was USD495 (RM2,026*) and students, USD249. The non-member fee was USD635 (RM2600). The one-day fee was over RM1,200, which is almost 70% of a Malaysian research assistant’s monthly salary.
The local SCB chapter raised sponsorship, but Wong said they only received 13 applications, and in the end the money was split to partially sponsor 6 students and 2 early career conservationists.
Participants could volunteer for 8 hours for a USD100 (RM409) reimbursement but that meant missing out on some sessions.
The impact of the high fee on Malaysians was manifold and cascading. However, everyone interviewed on this issue, requested anonymity.
For one, participants said the fee put off some locals from even submitting abstracts; others whose abstracts had been accepted, pulled out.
A mid-careerist refrained from applying for sponsorship to give younger conservationists a chance to attend. Another said it was the first time she had had to find three sponsors to fund her participation in a conference.
And the fee was one reason for the lack of presence of Malaysian government agencies, said sources. This had repercussions on the impact of the conference.
“In Malaysia, nothing can be done without the government,” said retired Fisheries officer Kevin Hiew in a speech at ICCB. Hiew was honoured for his achievements in Malaysia’s marine parks and the regional Coral Triangle Initiative.
Several local attendees expressed surprised at the absence of a high-level Ministry official officiating at the congress opening and/or participating in a plenary.
The highest-ranking agency official to participate was the Director-General of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, who spoke on a panel on the last day.
This also affected local media coverage at the conference. Without prominent government presence or announcements, local mainstream media did not show up; only two reporters covered the event. In contrast, an Indonesian portal sent three journalists.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” opined one participant. “The real value of ICCB is having all these conservationists in one place. Having it here in Kuala Lumpur meant it had such potential for a huge impact on Malaysians.
“The organisers could have made some sessions public, particularly the exhibits and posters. The setting is great, right in the city centre where there is a lot of foot traffic. There could have been media events.”
Both the main organising Chairs acknowledged that affordability was an issue.
“It comes up at every ICCB,” said Cornick. “It’s a conversation we’re having within SCB, encouraged through social media.”
But this year’s congress has catalysed the need to pay serious attention to it by the SCB board and executive, said Cigliano. He attributed that to the “confluence of people” and SCB being “more receptive to having this discussion now”.
“If we can do a better job with more grants, we can support more delegates to attend,” said Cornick. “And we need to look at what other ways we can encourage increased participation from local delegates.”
At the end of the day though, the congress did make a positive impact on Malaysian conservation. It could perhaps be summed up by the popular use of a hashtag on congress-related social media posts by Malaysians: #ConservationOptimism.
This global movement is about “featuring the positive and inspiring parts of what we do,” explained Aini Hasanah Abd Mutalib, PhD student at Universiti Sains Malaysia. She coordinated a number of Conservation Optimism programmes at ICCB.
“Positivity and optimism, instead of a culture of hopelessness and pessimism, are the elements we need to move forward.”
Besides inspiring participants in its sessions, the Conservation Optimism group showcased local, sometimes individual efforts throughout Malaysia. It also had a fund-raising component, part of which fed a scholarship fund for Malaysian students to attend future conferences.
A presenter who managed to attend ICCB only when she received unexpected aid from a past sponsor, said she knows now to set aside money for future conferences.
In the absence of media coverage, information and experiences were shared by local participants on social media and Whatsapp. A number of intrepid non-registrants turned up at lunchtime and between sessions to meet people in the public areas.
The KL Declaration
Finally, the Malaysian and Asian chapters, along with the SCB Policy Working Group, formulated the 2019 Kuala Lumpur Declaration: The Species Extinction Crisis is a Crisis of Humanity. It captures “attendees’ concerns about the species extinction crisis and calls for immediate and sustained attention to address this challenge”.
It also aims to inform next year’s major Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the new global Strategic Plan for Biodiversity.
Conferences can only do so much. But they are powerful community events, as young Lyvia has already learned. “Conservation is a tough job. Sometimes you get fed up. But when you talk to people, you learn you are not alone.”
(With reporting by YH Law)
* USD : Ringgit = 1: 4.0945. This conversion rate is the average of the lowest and highest rates between March 7 and May 3, 2019, being the respective dates the early bird registration fees were announced and ended. Historical rates taken from www.onanda.com
The Macaranga team covered ICCB 2019 over four days from 21–25 July. Read earlier reports here: Gibbons Still Sing in Merapoh I How Do Turtles Like Their Sand? I In the Murky Waters of Brunei Bay I Marine Championed Honoured With Award I Plastic Solutions: It’s Complicated I When Plastic Hits You In The Gut I Where Might Oil Palm Go Next? I Opinion: Talk Less, Listen More